Wellington Scoop

Trams or trains – what 3 studies proposed

by Brent Efford
The reality of the noise problem on Johnsonville trains (which brought complaints last week) is that the heavy rail electric multiple units which provide the service are at their limits on the line, although it now has the best on-time performance of any rail line in Wellington – 94%, even with the clapped-out English Electrics that were in use till June.

The noise problem would not have occurred if modern trams were used for the Johnsonville service. They were studied from the 1980s as replacements for the English Electrics. Three Regional Council studies in the 1990s proposed that light rail (tram train in the Wellington context) would be used on the line.

However, after the supporters of those studies were kicked out of the Regional Council bureaucracy or left in disgust in the early 2000s, light rail was forgotten about and the Matangi Mistake (specifying the new trains as heavy rail, not tram-train) was made by the current transport managers and approved by councillors with limited memories.

To a tram, fitted with resilient wheels and configured to operate over grades as steep as 1 in 12 and curves of 25m radius, the Johnsonville line is almost level and almost straight, and the noise problem would not have occurred.

When a busway plan on the government-owned railway line was rejected by OnTrack and Dr Cullen in 2006, Dr Cullen wrote to the city council and the regional council and noted:

“I am aware of the desire to look at extending the Johnsonville Line to Courtenay Place and this decision should not preclude that option in the future.”

Needless to say, that broad hint was ignored by the regional council, and more money than would have been needed to convert the Johnsonville line infrastructure to light rail was instead spent on readying it for the Matangis.

Brent Efford is Information Officer of Trams-Action – Tram-train for Wellington


  1. erentz, 7. December 2012, 13:36

    Hear, hear, Brent. This was a no-brainer. It was frustrating to watch many opportunities pass by where the GWRC could’ve changed tack and opted for light rail on the Johnsonville Line.

  2. Dave, 8. December 2012, 14:45

    Just returned from Nice in France where their two tram lines are being extended. Fare is 1 Euro per ride [about NZ$1.65]. Run every 10 minutes. Absolutely chocka night and day. Trams are the only answer for Wellington, whether from Johnsonville or through Courtenay Place and to the hospital and/or Airport. And, I add, affordable trams. Local buses are still 1 Euro per ride, Nice to Antibes, Nice to Menton, Nice to Grasse, Nice to Monaco. Some journeys are 45-50km and 1 hour plus. The French cannot do decent railways [that mantle has passed to Italy] but trams on the Riviera they can do very well.

  3. Mac Scott, 12. December 2012, 13:41

    Most Governments and Councils, when it comes to urban public transport, seem to commit the same mistake time and again! The longer a transportation problem is not properly addressed, the worse it gets and more difficult and expensive to fix. This is true ALL OVER the world, not just in New Zealand.

  4. Tony, 13. December 2012, 9:44

    Brent. Could you please tell us the exactly the names of the “Three Regional Council studies in the 1990s [which] proposed that light rail (tram train in the Wellington context) would be used on the line.”?

  5. Brent Efford, 13. December 2012, 23:50

    Yes – Travers Morgan 1993, Works/MVA 1995, WRLTS 1999 (which envisaged tram-train extensions to Lower Hutt, Stokes Valley and Whitby which would obviously include J’ville as an earlier stage.)

    Plus the SKM report for the Lower Hutt City Council in 2000 also envisaged light rail from Melling to Waterloo via Lower Hutt Central, clearly as a subsequent stage to tram-train becoming established elsewhere (as NZ Rail proposed for both Auckland and Wellington in 1990).

    Incidentally, the Travers Morgan report and the Regional Council’s negotiations with NZ Rail in 1993 was greeted fulsomely by the Evening Post of the day – see:
    to see what we missed.

  6. Phil C, 14. December 2012, 4:24

    Trams are quiet, reliable and energy efficient ways of getting around and they mix well with pedestrianised areas. An ideal solution for Wellington, and one which it had many moons ago. A bit like Kiwi radio stations, NZ history seems to be stuck in some sort of “repeat” mode.

  7. Kerry, 14. December 2012, 22:53

    One problem with trams is that they cost roughly twice as much as Matangis.
    Two more problems crop up if if city-running is contemplated.
    — Low-floor trams will not fit through the Johnsonville tunnels, which are very narrow at rail level. The alternative high-floor trams will fit but need large platforms in the city, too high to double as a footpath.
    — City-running trams have to be short enough to fit the available stop spaces. This limits them to about 50-60 m long. This is much shorter than a 6-car Matangi (not yet in use but platform capacity provided) and introduces a capacity problem. The solution is more trams but it is far from easy on a single track line with multiple tunnels. It will need partial double-tracking and will not be cheap.

  8. Dave, 15. December 2012, 15:31

    Trams I’ve just used in Nice are double tracked with green belt partially in between, similar to those used in Zurich a fortnight ago too. Trams are ideal to run from the Wellington Railway Station to Courtenay Place, and on to Newtown Zoo. No tunnels. Low floor trams fit well. Extend the stopping places to fit the trams, not shorten the trams! There are so many places that trams work well, I can’t understand the ignorance of Kiwis who keep postponing them, unless they’re embarrassed at having to admit they’ve got it wrong for so long. I sense Infratil’s tentacles may be holding back this sensible introduction? In recent years, I’ve used and enjoyed trams [not local trains] in Nice, Vienna & Zurich, none of which are particularly large population cities either. I’ve lost count of cities where the bus services are smarter and cheaper, starting with Christchurch post-earthquake. Why are the Wellington bureaucrats so dumb? And the local politicians so spineless? And a second tram line from Courtenay Place to Kilbirnie, Airport and Island Bay via the bays with a 3rd line from Newtown to Island Bay. Dismantle the GWCC to pay for these trams if necessary.